by William H. Benson
March 7, 2019
John Mitchell smoked a pipe when he served as Attorney General in Nixon’s White House, and also as chair of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, CREEP, in 1971, leading up to the Presidential election in November of 1972. Two years later, after the public learned the truth about Watergate, John Mitchell called the blunders that he witnessed, “the White House horrors.”
First, there was the Huston Plan. In 1970, Tom Charles Huston, a White House liaison, issued a 43-page secret report that suggested “black-bag jobs, break-ins, domestic burglary, electronic surveillance by wiretapping, and clandestine mail openings,” all to get dirt on Nixon’s perceived enemies.
Huston warned Nixon that these were illegal operations, but Nixon wanted to use them. Mitchell convinced Nixon to revoke the plan, but still the President implemented certain of its provisions.
In late June and early July of 1971, on four occasions, Nixon ranted that he wanted someone to break into the Brookings Institute and bring back a file that he believed would embarrass the former President, Lyndon Johnson.
Nixon said, “You remember Huston’s plan? Implement it.” He further said, “I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Go in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.” In the summer of of 1971, the President of the United States demanded that his associates commit a crime, breaking and entering.
Then, there was the Plumbers Gang, a White House “Special Investigations Unit,” set up on July 24, 1971, to stop leaks, including Daniel Ellsberg’s submission of the Pentagon Papers to the newspapers. The Papers told a tragic story of the US’s misguided military war in Vietnam.
- Gordy Liddy, an extreme right-winger, and E. Howard Hunt, an inept former CIA agent, joined the Plumbers Gang. On September 3, 1971, Liddy and Hunt flew to Los Angeles, broke into Lewis Fielding’s psychiatric office in Beverly Hills, and tried, but failed, to find Daniel Ellsberg’s file. “They wanted the file to defame or blackmail Ellsberg.”
In August of 1971, Charles Colson, one of Nixon’s most loyal associates, prepared “an enemies list,” of twenty people that Nixon did not like, including Daniel Schorr and Paul Newman. On occasion, when Nixon ranted about his enemies, he demanded that the IRS initiate a tax audit on them.
In January of 1972, Liddy presented to White House officials—John Mitchell, and a young legal counsel named John Dean III—a preposterous plan called Gemstone. Thirteen months later, Dean explained to Nixon what Liddy had proposed that day. Dean said,
“So I came over and Liddy laid out a million-dollar plan that was the most incredible thing I have ever laid my eyes on: all in codes, and involved black-bag operations, kidnapping, providing prostitutes to weaken the opposition, bugging, mugging teams. It was just an incredible thing.”
John Mitchell told Liddy that the cost was too high, but later the Attorney General approved a reduced version of Gemstone at a cost of $250,000.
Then, there were the “dirty tricks,” that Nixon’s operatives played on possible Democrat challengers in the forthcoming 1972 election, against Edmund Muskie, Edward Kennedy, George Wallace, and George McGovern. They spread malicious rumors, found and tossed away the candidates’ shoes.
The most consequential, but not the last, “White House horror” occurred at Washington D.C.’s Watergate Hotel at 2:30 a.m., on the morning of June 17, 1972. Police arrested five Plumbers Gang members—James McCord, Eugenio Martinez, Virgilio Gonzales, Bernard Baker, and Frank Sturgis—inside the Democratic National headquarters on the sixth floor.
The five burglars were taking photographs of campaign documents and inserting bugs into the telephones. Their two supervisors, Liddy and Hunt, fled the area, once the police nabbed the five.
Watergate was the tip of an iceberg of criminality. In 2012, Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote in the Washington Post, that “Nixon had turned his White House, to a remarkable extent, into a criminal enterprise.”
Judge John Sirica gave the five burglars and their two handlers various sentences, but G. Gordon Liddy served the longest term in prison, four and a half years.
Daniel Moynihan, later a Senator from New York, described Nixon’s White House, “They were not berserk. They merely let themselves get involved step by step into something that got out of control, whereupon they tried to cover up and thereupon came catastrophe.”
Next time in these pages, “Watergate—conspiracy to coverup.”